UNC freshman forward Nassir Little turned in one of his best performances of the season and the No. 8 Heels (22-5, 12-2 ACC) turned a so-so overall performance into a second straight runaway win over a ranked conference foe yesterday afternoon in the Smith Center, beating No. 16 Florida State (21-6, 9-5) for the eighth time in the last nine meetings, 77-59.
Little tied for the team high with 18 points and added eight rebounds and one assist, block, and steal each. He committed two turnovers, but the projected NBA lottery pick displayed arguably his best mixture to date of playing aggressive and under control. Little also made several plays showing why he is just that – a projected NBA lottery pick.
The 6-6, 220-pound forward hit 6-of-11 shots from the field and 6-of-8 from the free-throw line in 23 minutes off the bench. He did not attempt a three-pointer.
This comes after Little scored just seven points over 22 minutes in UNC’s two previous games combined (however, he didn’t play in the second half of the Feb. 16 win at Wake Forest from a hit to the chest, after leaving the Feb. 11 loss vs. Virginia after two minutes with an ankle injury). His first encounter with archrival Duke in Wednesday night’s win could best be described as sluggish and tentative, bearing in mind that Little disclosed yesterday that he sustained a knee injury just before the showdown in Cameron.
In this matchup, Little entered the game around the 15-minute mark and went to work against FSU’s monstrous front line. He missed two of his first three attempts, but he finished the half with 11 points and five boards. Little’s first points came on an acrobatic turn-around jumper and-one banked in from the free-thrown line with the shot clock winding down.
Little showed little hesitation driving to the hoop against Seminole defenders he clearly didn’t think could contain him. That was never more evident than midway through the first half, when the athletic wing drove the right side and threw down a vicious one-handed slam over 6-10, 250-pound FSU sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele. Mfiondu, meet the poster.
In the second half, Little again started somewhat slow, missing his first two jump shots before settling in to post seven points and three rebounds. He also offered the dagger with about five and a half minutes to play with Carolina milking a 15-point lead:
Senior guard Cam Johnson received a pass on the right wing. As the Noles ran Johnson off the three-point line, Little called for the ball, open in the right corner. But Johnson pulled up from the right elbow and his jumper rattled out. Instead of chilling in the corner, Little had sprinted along the baseline and was in perfect position to reach back for a thunderous put-back dunk. Carolina stretched the lead to 70-53 and the game was all but over, if it hadn’t been already. Little exited to loud applause a minute later.
As fellow freshman phenom Coby White continued a four-game slump – though the point guard did have his moments, including a six-point spurt to open the second half – Little rose to the occasion and provided a pivotal energy spark for UNC in the dreaded potential “hangover” game (Coach Roy Williams and the Heels, however, are now 16-0 in regular season games following a matchup against Duke).
It was Little’s fourth-highest scoring output of the season, second-highest since a Nov. 19 win over St. Francis (PA), and highest since a Jan. 21 victory over Virginia Tech. His eight rebounds were a career-high, though he has tallied six or seven boards 12 times. Little also played effective defense, closing out quickly on shooters and challenging attempts on the inside to help the Heels limit the Noles to 59 points on 30.5% shooting. He dove after multiple loose balls.
In what is starting to make us sound like a broken record, Johnson could be the Player of the Game in just about every outing, and that held true in the comfortable win over Florida State. The 6-9 sharpshooter scored 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting and posted a double-double with 10 rebounds. We’ll give him an honorable mention here.
Senior forward Luke Maye also had a strong performance, scoring 15 points and snatching 11 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. He also made two huge 3-pointers within three possessions (one cold-blooded, one lucky) that ballooned Carolina’s lead from four points to 12 between 10:22 and 9:00 remaining. The missiles Luke launched were sandwiched around a nice, patient turn-around jump shot in the lane by Little.
Indeed, yesterday’s victory belonged to the springy freshman forward from Orange Park, Fla. Aggressive, energetic, and efficient Little is the best Little.